Virginia couple grow heirloom kinds of apples to use in making hard cider.
When my wife, Elaine, and I entered the front door of Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur, Virginia, our first impression was of the sweet smell of fermenting fruit. By the front door, we then gazed on an inviting tray of Winesaps with a printout touting the many virtues of this traditional apple variety. On a table near the back wall, we found a neat row of three signature varieties of hard cider sold by owner Diane Flynt, and with a quick glimpse to the right, we could see the steel tanks where apples were metamorphosing into hard cider.
It was October, which meant cider-making season on this Blue Ridge Mountain farm, and Diane, with the assistance of her husband, Chuck, was busy making cider, filling orders, scheduling workshops, and doing myriad orchard maintenance chores that go with tending more than 1,000 apple trees — all of them heirloom varieties (some 30 in all) popular from this country’s settlement to the mid-1900s, then forgotten for many decades.
Now, traditional cider making with heritage apples is seeing a renaissance, and the Flynts are part of that revival.
“One of Chuck’s and my missions here is to preserve and grow these uncommon varieties and show other people how they can do the same,” says Diane. “That’s one of the reasons why we offer grafting workshops and an annual fall identification day where folks can bring in apples from ‘Granddaddy’s orchard,’ have them identified, and later, hopefully, graft them themselves so as to preserve these varieties’ genetic diversity.”
In the mid-1990s, the Flynts began looking for a farm where they could create an apple orchard for cider-making purposes. Diane had retired from her job in the banking industry and wanted to return to a place similar to her rural Georgia roots. By 1998, the couple had selected this 220-acre Carroll County farm and planted their first varieties. After they purchased the farm, Diane journeyed to England to take a course in cider making and talked with heritage apple experts like North Carolina’s Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. and Virginia’s Tom Burford. By 2004, the cider was flowing.
“We only grow cider apples, all old-fashioned uncommon apples, chosen especially for cider making,” said Diane. “Using modern apples like Golden Delicious or Red Delicious for hard cider would be like using table grapes for fine wine. Excellent hard cider starts in the orchard, just like fine wine begins in the vineyard.
“Colonial Americans drank lots of hard cider, actually more cider than water since it was safer. We strive to revive the traditional craft of cider making, but do so in a thoroughly modern way with state-of-the-art equipment and a modern cider facility.”
Diane then left the room and came back with a plate of sliced cheddar cheese, cider and glasses.
“Let’s try our Serious Cider first,” she says. “It’s very dry with only 0.4 percent residual sugar content and tastes very much like traditional British cider. The high tannin and acidity in this blend makes these apples impossible to eat out of hand — what folks used to call ‘spitters,’ because if you tasted them, you had to spit them out.”
Diane added that Serious Cider goes best with foods like crab cakes, salty nuts and schnitzel. She says an important apple in the blend is Ashmead’s Kernel, which was the first variety the couple planted. This apple originated in the 1700s in England, and it’s understandable why supermarkets, which often value appearance over taste and utility, do not stock it.
Ashmead’s Kernel is a small, greenish russet apple with a lumpy misshapen appearance. Despite its features, this variety excels when it comes to being pressed for juice and hard cider. With a strange name as well, the Ashmead’s Kernel fell into disuse when the modern supermarket era began and stores stocked apples with enticing names and bright colors (think Red Delicious) and the texture and flavor of moist cardboard (again think Red Delicious).
Next, Diane poured First Fruit with 1.2 percent residual sugar, which she described as being “more fruity and aromatic than Serious Cider,” yet is pleasingly tart rather than sweet. The primary variety for First Fruit is Hewe’s Crab crabapple. This variety originated sometime in the early 1700s in Virginia and was perhaps the most popular cider apple of the Colonial era.
Unsurprisingly, this crabapple is seldom grown today, as it is small and light green with red stripes, and it flaunts a harsh taste. But in a cider press, the Hewe’s Crab produces bountiful juice of the highest quality. The hard cider from Hewe’s is said to have been a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
“This is our most popular cider,” says Diane. “It’s very food friendly, and it goes great with aged cheeses.”
Then she opened a bottle of Sweet Stayman. She compared it — with its 2.3 percent residual sugar content — to a sweet Riesling or a medium-sweet American wine.
“Sweet Stayman goes well with spicy Thai dishes or with barbecued meat of any kind,” she says. “Traditional North Carolina barbecue, which is vinegar based, particularly goes well with it.”
As one would expect, Sweet Stayman has as its main ingredient Stayman’s Winesap apples, a sport (that is a strain) of the Winesap. The Stayman was developed in the mid-1800s by Joseph Stayman of Leavenworth, Kansas.
The Winesap probably originated in the 1700s in New Jersey and is generally acknowledged as being one of America’s most popular apples in the 1800s, holding that rank until the 1950s. Fortunately, Winesaps can often be purchased today at farmers’ markets, although they are rarely seen in a supermarket.
“We blend in Roxbury Russets with the Stayman’s for tannin purposes,” Diane says. “Now, which cider do you like the best?”
Cider — whether hard or soft — conjures up fall images of hayrack rides and woodstoves, and cider making is quite easy once you have the right apple varieties on hand. Just like home brewing and other “old-fashioned” crafts, the renaissance is on, right here on the American homestead.
Looking for more? Think how tasty this Honey Apple Butter Recipe will be with heritage apples.
Foggy Ridge Cider
1328 Pineview Road
Dugspur, VA 24325
Two classic books on Old South apples are the revised Old Southern Apples by Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. (Chelsea Green) and Apples of North America: 192 Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks by Tom Burford (Timber Press).
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